What Are Teachers Really For?
Meeting all the state standards is great, but is that what you signed up for?
I taught music at a small public charter school in southwest Phoenix.
That first year, I had around forty students spread across three classes. Of those forty, around twenty-five of them were brand-new beginners who had never had any substantive music education prior to arriving in my classroom and whose parents disliked the music requirement at our school.
Instead of bemoaning what I lacked, or what the community lacked, or the school, I focused on the goals that had been put before me: put on a good show and grow the program. Instead of focusing on “the repertoire” (a list of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic-era music by the masters that makes up the bulk of “advanced” and “experienced” state music standards) I focused on music that the kids enjoyed.
I focused on making band and orchestra fun.
We played Queen and Michael Jackson and some of that music was deceptively difficult (turns out the cello isn’t really built for playing funk-rock).
I used popular soundtracks to introduce world music concepts: Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling (from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film) is bossa nova, the Hobbit soundtrack draws heavily on Irish folk music.
Our concerts were certainly fun, even if they weren’t focused on “the repertoire”. I made sure the concerts were full of pieces that parents would recognize, even if they had never been exposed to a lot of classical music prior to enrolling their kids in my program. I made the band and orchestra much more visible than it had been: we played at pep rallies, we put instrumentalists in the talent show, we created a drumline to play at football games, we made school-wide announcements for band and orchestra accomplishments, and we dressed up on the days of our performances and took the kids out of class for field trips, making them conspicuous by their absence on those days.
And I made sure those kids knew I cared about them personally and that their input mattered. They helped choose music, they took ownership of fundraising efforts, they petitioned the administration for new classes and new opportunities to perform and travel.
The program grew.
By the end of my fourth school year, the program had grown from forty musicians to over a hundred and thirty, and around a dozen students had voluntarily enrolled in more than one music class so they could learn a second instrument.
Then I made the heart-rending decision to leave the school after a major payroll dispute.
The school year started in August, but I gave my principal a long notice: September 19th would be my last day.
After my departure, kids reacted in a variety of ways, and I wasn’t there, so I won’t pontificate on the reasons or the details. Suffice it to say that a large number of students did not like the new teacher and he treated them poorly as a result (that much I did see with my own eyes, on two brief occasions).
At a community event, the orchestra was scheduled to play.
The new teacher decided, at the last minute, not to go through with the performance. He told the students, point blank, “You don’t deserve to play out there. It’s too embarrassing.”
Instead of taking that kind of abuse, the students decided to do it themselves. They decided to put on a performance by themselves, with no teacher in front of them.
A tenth-grader stood in front of a group of his peers and conducted them as they played the Christmas medley they had learned for this community event. The music was shaky, and it was clear the kids were nervous.
But they did it.
They performed for their community, showed off what they had learned. They stood up for themselves, they took control of their lives.
What they had learned wasn’t really music, though they had learned some of that, too.
What they had learned over the previous four years was that they could do hard things, they could stand up for themselves, and they were an important part of their community. That their work was worthy. That they were worthy.
The music was secondary to all of that.
I had been given two tasks when I was hired: put on good concerts and grow the program. Both of which were accomplished. The music program had certainly grown, both in skill and in sheer numbers. And we had learned to put on an enjoyable show twice a year.
But none of that is really the goal of any classroom teacher, of any school. The accolades and the numbers look good and are useful for funding, but I don’t know anyone who graduated college with their education degree who said their goal was to “run a program that hit all the state standards!” or “have the best test scores in the district!”
Teachers become teachers because they love learning and they love kids. The goal is always touch kids’ hearts, above all else. Every department and every teacher has a different skillset in order to accomplish that.
English teachers want to touch kids’ hearts through stories, language, poetry, and words.
Math teachers want to touch kids’ hearts with logic and a strong foundation for scaffolding skills.
History teachers use stories and our shared humanity.
Arts teachers use the arts to express that which words cannot.
Athletics teachers want kids to learn to love their bodies.
So what are we really doing in the classroom? If you, like many other teachers across the country, have maybe lost sight of why you started doing this in the first place, please stop and use the summer to readjust your focus.
If I had wanted an orchestra full of instrumentalists who played their scales perfectly, from memory, every time, I surely failed.
But since my goal was an orchestra full of kids who knew how to be part of something bigger than themselves, that they could do hard things, and that their voices had value, I succeeded.
What does success look like in your classroom, in your school, and what are you doing to make that success happen?